Climate change will impact the health of all populations, but older adults are uniquely vulnerable because of the physiological changes of aging.
More than half of older adults in the U.S. live in areas that disproportionately experience the effects of heat waves, forest fires, hurricanes and coastal flooding. Pennsylvania, New York, California, Florida and Texas account for the top five states where older adults are concentrated. Older adults who live in urban areas are vulnerable to heat island effect – the concentration and retention of heat in urban areas compared to rural areas – which places older residents in cities at increased risk of heat related illnesses and death.
“Gerontological nurses need to be prepared to address the specific issues of older adults,” says Ruth McDermott-Levy, director of the Center for Global Health at Villanova University’s M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing. “We want to help nurses understand climate change and the need for specific interventions to support climate adaptation for the older adult population.”
Climate change impacts require modifications in health plans for older adults. Prolonged heat will require greater needs for hydration, but the patient’s other conditions need to be considered as well. Elders with heart disease and renal failure will require astute nursing assessments to monitor the balance of hydration and electrolytes while not leading to fluid overload or electrolyte imbalances in the presence of extreme heat.
With their research, practice, and policy, gerontological nurses are in an important position to be changemakers by measuring and documenting the harm and impact of climate change on older adults. They can advocate for policies that support older adults in disasters or extreme weather events. Nurse researchers can collaborate with climate scientists and policy makers to develop policies and programs that rely on climate and health evidence to support climate mitigation and adaptation for the older adult.
“It is everyone’s responsibility to learn about climate change and to participate in slowing the trajectory of climate change,” McDermott-Levy says.
To speak with McDermott-Levy, email email@example.com or call 610-519-5152.
Ruth McDermott-Levy, PhD Professor; Co-Director, Mid-Atlantic Center for Children's Health and the Environment | M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing
Dr. McDermott-Levy, PhD, MPH, RN, FAAN is an expert in environmental health, global health, and public health nursing